Words Fail

Notes on semantic deconversion

It’s difficult to study words, because words are hard to see. Words are tools used in communication, and when communication is working, they disappear into invisibility. 

One way to see words is to make a word jail: a list of problematic words ripped out of their contexts, so that they may be seen for themselves instead of hiding behind meanings. 

Another way to see words freshly, to experience them as broken and therefore present, is to enter a new domain with its own unfamiliar jargon. Military basic training, rock climbing, sailing (whether Melville-era or contemporary), and weaving all require that novices take on a new jargon in order to get a grip on a new domain. The jargon enables the initiates to pick out important aspects of the world (in their bodies, in the natural environment, in the technology). With new words, they learn to identify newly-salient aspects of reality and communicate with others about them. 

This is also true in domains with less connection to brick-and-mortar reality. Philosophies and theologies and theories of psychology and politics also use jargons that pick out aspects of reality for consideration, jargons which adherents absorb as they become competent. It seems that there is a difference between the words developed in these domains, and words that develop in the domains in the previous paragraph. The difference is that if words are used wrongly, or their meaning allowed to slip and degrade, in the cases in the previous paragraph, there would be terrible trouble. In the more abstract cases of the present paragraph, it is possible for words to become unmoored without anyone noticing. Perhaps the words even serve to protect these domains from the intrusion of reality. The as-if shared language game becomes the territory itself. 

Such meanings as words get in shared fantasy games are different from the meaning words get in language communities whose classifications and jargon must be relied upon for survival by their practitioners, as in sailing or rock climbing. But even weaving jargon is less degenerate than that of psychology. Apparently even this little amount of contact with reality can protect a jargon from loss of meaning. Weaving language is hotly debated; there is no official terminology in weaving, to the dismay of some deluded would-be standardizers. Perhaps this is an advantage. 

There is, of course, nothing wrong with shared fantasy games. It is only when these games attempt to remake the world, to systematize it according to their own jargons, that problems emerge.

The DSM in psychology is an official book of the presently-dominant school of psychology’s jargon. The words in the DSM have little ability, on their own, to pick out important aspects of reality. The DSM jargon is given meaning when learned in a psychological community (a hospital or practice or university, say) while observing people, classifying them one way and another, until the initiates can aesthetically “see” the different constructs for themselves, just like their teachers. Each observing-teaching community unavoidably develops its own distinct meanings for the DSM words. But within psychology, as within many domains, there is a clear belief that these special jargon words have global meaning: that they apply to humans generally, and that their meanings are clear and shared. This faith, evidenced most in psychology’s tools and experimental methods, is both touching and troubling.

The DSM words grow in population steadily, as if they are constantly found to be inadequate in providing a global picture of the interior human world. It would be impossible for them not to be. 

There is nothing wrong with a word in itself, any more than a word in itself carries meaning. But there are patterns that appear pathological in the way groups use words to pick out patterns, particularly when the words are not the jargon of a community in precarious, direct contact with the world being described. 

To lose faith in words, to find the words broken in general rather than here and there, is an unpleasant deconversion experience. Those who have undergone this crisis in faith—Heidegger, Korzybski, Wittgenstein, Garfinkel—often attempt to leave a record of it, swallowing the irony that they can only communicate using the now-distrusted words. Wittgenstein’s is the most cogent and least brain-melting; the others, and many like them, adopt new jargons, put all kinds of unfamiliar weight on parts of speech, multiply clauses, troll typographically with brackets and scare quotes, and wrap it all in puns, jokes, and absurdities. It seems to be difficult to go through this transition and remain sane, or retain the ability to articulate things in the usual way, if there is a difference between the two.

This traumatic deconversion can only occur among those who have faith in words, and the most pious are the most vulnerable. Even in deconversion, many nonetheless attempt to express the deconversion and its phenomenology in words, new ones used in new ways. It is impossible to know how common the deconversion is. There may be thousands of these idiosyncratic attempts at expression, written from semantic hell, buried in diaries and letters and internet forums. A few deconversion memoirs have been taken up by communities, who learn their jargons, adapt and interpret them as they like, and ensure they live on to confound new generations.

Christopher Alexander’s work exhibits signs of semantic deconversion. The patterns in A Pattern Language, developed in earlier works, especially A Timeless Way of Building, offer names for picking out aspects of well-functioning beauty in the world. They operate similarly to words. Alexander offers them as hopeful replacements for the available building “patterns,” which are ugly and inane. 

Consider the word “fireplace.” It’s not even an abstract noun; it refers to a concrete, functional object. But its meaning can slide and degrade, as the word slips out of entanglement with concrete reality (Timeless Way of Building, p. 235-236):

So long as I build for myself, the patterns I use will be simple, and human, and full of feeling, because I understand my situation. But as soon as a few people begin to build for “the many,” their patterns about what is needed become abstract; not matter how well meaning they are, their ideas gradually get out of touch with reality, because they are not faced daily with the living examples of what the patterns say.

If I build a fireplace for myself, it is natural for me to make a place to put the wood, a corner to sit in, a mantel wide enough to put things on, an opening which lets the fire draw.

But, if I design fireplaces for other people—not for myself—then I never have to build a fire in the fireplaces I design. Gradually my ideas become more and more influenced by style, and shape, and crazy notions—my feeling for the simple business of making a fire leaves the fireplace altogether. 

So, it is inevitable that as the work of building passes into the hands of specialists, the patterns which they use become more and more banal, more willful, and less anchored in reality.

The problem is not with the word “fireplace.” Substituting a new word (“personal fireplace” or “hearth,” maybe) would not solve the problem. The word has shifted meaning because of changes in how material culture is produced. The jargon of psychology will not come to reflect human reality just by adopting new words, either.

In later work (The Nature of Order, Volume 1), Alexander develops a new vocabulary for beauty, an analytic list of fifteen fundamental properties. Alexander strikes a compromise between old and new ways of thinking. He provides a numbered list of named essences like a nineteenth-century scientist, but makes the constructs themselves problematic, operating on each other at all levels. It is an aesthetic task (and a rewarding one) to apply Alexander’s list and absorb the new jargon. Trying to understand them while evaluating beautiful (and ugly) things is worthwhile; trying to understand them while attempting to make beautiful things provides an additional level of understanding. 

Imagine a pair of hikers on the trail, trying to orient themselves at a crossroads. They are looking at a topographic map. One hiker points to a nearby ridge, and then to a feature on the map, and then looks in the eyes of the other hiker. Tacitly, he is saying, “is this ridge here the same as this ridge on the map?”

This vignette serves to illustrate the complexity of the use of words. Sometimes words pick out aspects of reality, like the rock climbing jargon. Sometimes words are names of aspects of a map, model, or theory, like the names of the factors in the Five Factor Model of personality. Sometimes words are even used to analyze the degree of correspondence between the two, as in the unspoken question between the hikers. 

The topographic map is a useful abstraction for the hikers. They are familiar with the method of representing elevation, and a picture of comparative elevations is adequate for them to orient themselves in the terrain. This is to be distinguished from pathological abstraction, abstraction of no use for orientation within an ongoing project. There is a genuine demand for abstraction, for good maps and models, but these are difficult to produce, and degenerate abstraction is easy. Just make a survey instrument and “validate” it, for instance. Then factor the responses, and you have an official, but likely completely useless and meaningless, abstraction of the original idea.

Changing language on its own is of little value. The words are innocent. Losing meaning is merely a symptom of the words coming unmoored from human reality, from making and maintaining, chatting and negotiating. In the domain of architecture, the results have been tragic. Psychology, which has never been particularly good since its inception, has undergone many changes in jargon; the present incarnation distinguishes itself mainly by the degree to which its categories and protocols invade the lives of most people. In politics, abstractions have probably always been dangerous. The famines and horrors of communist revolutions, for example, usually co-occur with lexical and semantic genocides, in which words lose their meaning, and new words, anti-patterns, are introduced (e.g. “kulak”). Again, the words are not to blame. It is the manner by which their meaning is mutilated that is the problem. 

Could there be a widespread crisis of faith in words—a mass deconversion? If it were possible for everyone in the world to simultaneously understand late Wittgenstein, would it be a terrible thing to behold? 

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