What’s a dinglehopper for? (Words and Meanings)

(Continuing to blog through Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer J. Adler)

In Walt Disney’s adaption of “The Little Mermaid,” Scuttle the seagull gives lessons in the names and uses of human artifacts. A fork is a dinglehopper, used for combing hair; a pipe is a musical instrument called a “banded, bulbous snarfblat.” Because Scuttle’s knowledge of human life is limited, he applies his own meaning to these tools. They are whatever he says they are.

Adler believes that contemporary linguistic philosophers have turned into a lot of Scuttles, or possibly Humpty Dumpties.*

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)

The philosopher Wittgenstein said that people should look at the practice of language, the use of words instead of their meaning; that it’s not about content or the actual existence of something; that words don’t necessarily represent things. Adler calls that fatuous: he believes that a word must have meaning before it is used, because otherwise how would we know how to use it, or why would there be any use for it? (You have to know what fatuous means before you can use it in a sentence.) The problem seems to be not only about words, but about the identity of objects, about the importance of giving things their right names. If we can know that real things exist outside of our own minds (as in an earlier chapter), so that two people can discuss an object they both perceive (or that one sees and one remembers or imagines), doesn’t that lead  to the idea that the object must be able to be named, and with a name previously agreed upon that carries a certain meaning?

Do words have their own meaning, or are they just tools for talking? One example that comes to mind is the question of “right and wrong,” “good and evil.” You may not believe in “sin,” just as you may not believe in “angels,” but that does not mean that the word itself is meaningless.

Does eliminating a particular word  change reality? No more than the forbidding of “war toys” prevents children from pretending to shoot each other with sticks.

That doesn’t mean that words can’t have more than one meaning, or that objects can’t have more than one use. You can call a fork a dinglehopper and comb your hair with it if you want. But that doesn’t change its essential identity as a fork.

” Language does not control thought, as contemporary linguistic philosophers appear to believe. It is the other way around.” (Adler, page 81)

*(On the subject of collective nouns for seagulls: everybody’s heard of a flock of seagulls, but did you know you can also say a squabble or a screech of gulls?)

Thinking abstractedly

(Whoops department: I first called this post Mind to Mind, and then I realized why it sounded good: that’s the title of Karen Glass’s new book.)

“…education is of the spirit and is not to be taken in by the eye or effected by the hand; mind appeals to mind and thought begets thought and that is how we become educated. For this reason we owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds that he may get at great thoughts; with the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works; and the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books.”  ~~ Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education

To continue with Adler’s Ten Philosophical Mistakes: the second problem he takes on is whether all knowledge comes through the senses, or whether we have a separate “intellectual” function of the mind that is not directly related to what we see, hear, remember, or imagine.  Sherlock Holmes, in the Sherlock T.V. series, has a “mind palace” from which he can dredge up information; but his “palace” is storage for facts he has amassed, not a vehicle for abstract thought. Is it possible for us to have another sort of “mind palace,” devoted to universals instead of particulars? Do humans have a side of the brain that handles only the abstract, that thinks about “love” or “God” or other things that don’t depend on what we can see or hear?

Adler says yes:  if we couldn’t think beyond sensory input, then we could have no general concept of “cow” or “triangle.” Although you can’t imagine a triangle without particular attributes, you still have a general idea of “triangle,” otherwise you wouldn’t know it’s a triangle. Charlotte Mason agreed (see the first chapter of Philosophy of Education, quoted above). Mason’s school-related twist on this was that although we can learn many things through our physical senses, the “mind to mind” component is vital (and potentially neglected).

I wonder if this is why Marva Collins’ first school, the one her husband built upstairs in their house, was successful in spite of being so crowded with desks that there was almost no room for the children to move around. The focus was on books and big ideas (Adler prefers “objects of thought”). The students’ minds were busy, so they didn’t seem to miss the frills of a public school classroom. Not that atmosphere and comfort don’t matter, but just that when the mind is engaged, sometimes the body can put up with a hard seat.

The science of relations, and reality

One of Charlotte Mason’s key ideas was that education is the science of relations.

In Mortimer J. Adler’s book Ten Philosophical Mistakes, the first chapter discusses whether there is actually objective reality. Can I truly know that anything that happens outside of my own mind is real; that it has a separate, independent existence and isn’t just something my imagination has constructed?

This caught my eye towards the end of the chapter:

“When we correct the initial error that generates all these results, we find ourselves living together in the world of physical reality, a world with which we have direct acquaintance in our perceptual experiences. We not only have bodily contact with one another in this world; we also communicate with one another about it when we discuss perceptual objects we can handle together…[as well as] past events or happenings that we remember, imaginary object as well as things we imagine that may also exist or be capable of real existence, and all objects of thought.”

So reality, in that sense, is about being able to form relationships. If matter really exists, we have a relationship with real objects. (Is that what you call objective reality?) We can touch things, see things, and so on; we believe that those things actually exist, and that they go on existing even when we are no longer around.

We can have relationships with real people, individuals who matter. We can communicate with them about not only the things we see and touch, but the things we think about. We aren’t trapped inside our own minds, and we aren’t imagining each other.

We can have a relationship with the One that Francis Schaeffer called the space-time God, the God Who Is There. He is as objectively real as the material objects we touch, and as the human beings around us. We also believe that God has communicated with us.

“As important as Schaeffer viewed worldviews and religious first principles, he was, at the end of the day, most concerned with objective reality and reality of the sort knowable to all mankind. He was, thus, a realist. ”  “Francis Schaeffer’s Real Reality”, at The Calvinist International

To quote the late Robin Williams: “Reality. What a concept.”

Big Green Checkmarks

Richard Feynman said (in The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist) that living in the state of not knowing is easy; what he really wanted to know was how to know!

I have had my share of living with not knowing over the past few months, particularly in the area of writing the book. Most obviously, I don’t have any previous knowing about writing books. Reading them, yes, and writing other things, but not writing a book. But that turned out to be the easy part. I knew what I wanted to say, and I knew when it was done. I had periods of wanting to quit and do something else, but I kept getting brought up short by Charlotte Mason’s quotes about Will.

I wrote the original draft in Word, in block-style paragraphs like this, as I’ve always done, with no attempt at formatting other than laboriously dragging the little markers on the toolbar around to indent quotations. I knew enough to know that a Word document would have to be converted somehow into an e-text version, and my husband obligingly downloaded the Sigil program and told me to have at it. I managed to produce a readable e-version to send to a couple of friends. “Now you’re done, right?” he asked. But some things still didn’t seem right; and when I ran it past the big green check mark at the top, the program revealed all kinds of errors in the Html code that I didn’t know how to fix. Besides, how was this going to work for a print version of the book?

I talked to my brother-in-law, who has more experience in publishing. He said, “I hate to tell you this, but I think you will have to put it back into Word.”

After I finished banging my head on the computer desk, I did two things. I borrowed April L. Hamilton’s book The Indie Author Guide from the public library, which takes you through the process of setting up a book on Word, step by step, button by button. Hamilton also explained a part of Word that I had never understood: how to use Styles and Formatting. If you set up the parameters, and then decide that you want the paragraphs indented a little more, you tell Word that and they all change at once. Kind of like an advanced Search and Replace; and no more dragging the little markers on the ruler.

The second thing I did was download a six-by-nine-inch template from CreateSpace, which saved me some of the setup work. The template gave me a dummy copy to paste into, and Hamilton gave me the answers when I got stuck and the headers were showing the wrong chapter titles. And look at that: I had a Word file that actually looked like a book. The best part is that, when I moved that file back into Sigil, the  new ePub version worked better and had less messy code than than the earlier attempts. I also ignored the big green checkmark.

So now I know some things that I didn’t know a few months ago, about what it takes to get a book written, about the magic of word processing, about Html, about online publishing. It still seems like about every other day there’s another thing I have to learn very quickly to keep the process moving. Recent lessons were all about websites and WordPress. How do you upload a printable? How do you get the menu of pages in the right order? Where do you get a contact form? My husband, my graphics-keen daughter, and online friends have been good backups, but I had to work through some of the knots of it myself.

Did I come out knowing more? Not so much as recognizing that yes, the not knowing is the easy, default setting; I often feel quite swamped by the amount of unknowing in my life. But since the not knowing is what we already have, there’s no particular merit in living with that recognition.  As Feynman said, the bigger question is about knowing.

Sometimes there are how-to books to give us answers. Sometimes there are templates to copy, or friends who know. Sometimes we’re on our own.  The real challenge is being open to knowledge, and finding out if there is something we can learn, even incompletely. And ignoring the big green checkmarks.