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994 words by Stanley Lieber

Violet used her stylus and pressed the reflective surface of her school leaf. After a while a margin message from Missus Camilla signaled the class to begin writing.

Violet began:

Words are insufficient to communicate all that is.

Having 'a problem' with this tends to imply that I think any other state of affairs is remotely possible. The fact is that I have to accept my best current thinking on the problem, and right now I haven't come up with any reasonable counter to the argument that language is inescapably circular. To me, this means that at best we can only approximate The Truth at any given moment -- and since we can't make these determinations with any significant certainty (i.e., to judge the accuracy of our approximations), 'A' can only equal 'A' on a localized, individual level.

And yet, 'A=A' is the fundamental assertion of logic. I think there is a tendency to try and expand too far upon this basic construction, in the subjective assumptions applied to logic tests, that too often outpaces language's ability to accurately map the salient factors at hand. Too much emphasis is placed upon how the logic is articulated, with very little actual understanding of the structure of the logic itself -- which, presumably, should transcend the language that was used to describe it.

This presents an interesting -- I'd say insurmountable -- problem, and was essentially my point in my previous paper. 'A=A' -- but what the hell is an 'A'? And who says so? The answer is it all depends on who you ask. And when.

I don't think the fact that we can evolve grammars which are effective at successfully managing objects or activities, effective at successfully managing the processes of machines, even, is evidence that those grammars are universally descriptive of our entire shared reality. Success in one, limited area does not imply universal success on a grand scale, even if many times a simple set of rules can exhibit emergent behaviors that transcend the original description.

Consider the following stories, and how seemingly correct articulations of reality work at cross-purposes to the protagonist's intentions, yet still manage to exhibit a peculiar efficacy all their own:

1.) A man had a job in a stroller factory. Being short on money, he one day decided to steal parts from his workplace to build a stroller for his child. He brought home a single piece from the factory each night, so as not to be detected. After many such nights he took inventory and noted that he had everything the instructions stated he would need to begin the work of actually putting the thing together. Finally, he assembled all the parts, only to discover that instead of a new stroller he had given birth to a spanking new sub-machine gun.

Does this mean that a stroller is in fact the very same thing as a sub-machine gun? After all, the man had worked in the factory for many years, and was quite experienced at his particular job (which consisted of speed-buffing several polished parts for the baby carts as they came past his station on an assembly line). In this case, the value of 'A' was first disputed; then investigated; and, finally, revised. In the end, would it have been sufficient to simply continue referring to the finished product as a 'stroller?'

2.) A priest gains increasing popularity with the native residents of a Roman-occupied garrison town in Jerusalem. After he has been put to death by a civilian court -- administered by his own people, no less -- a cult religion springs up around him -- amongst some of those same callous citizens -- and a legend begins to harden around the memory of his living days. Glorifying them. His story is at first spread verbally, but then is eventually written down by hundreds of scribes who live a generation or two after his death, and have thus never met him.

Each scribe put a slightly different spin on the 'facts' as they had come to know them. I'm sure you can follow this one to its conclusion on your own. At a certain point, the language used to describe the legend begins to transcend the actual events, and takes on a life of its own. The events themselves remain unwitnessed; obscured.

The above are clearly examples which reinforce the notion that all languages are tautologies. For this reason, 'A=A' can only apply universally when the definition of 'A' cannot be tampered with (this does tend to break the discussion out into many different levels -- including questions of 'control' over shared languages [i.e., dictionaries, popular idiom] -- but the problem of complexity comes part and parcel with the problem of precision). 'A=A' may well be subjectively true, but the equation is necessarily based on assumptions that may be incorrect. Additionally, the uncomfortable truth about our knowledge of the world is that it is almost always filtered through a mediating source which may not even be benevolent. Think about that. Even if we momentarily eschew the likelihood of intentional misrepresentation, we must accept that once language escapes our minds and begins to interact with the language of others, we lose personal control over its context and meaning. At this point, rationally, we should acknowledge that we can no longer verify that 'A' means what we think it does. Thus we come to glimpse the limitations of logic itself.

Language initiates us into a special kind of 'cargo cult' -- we scramble, frothing about the mouth like tropical savages, attempting to recreate attractive depictions of some Reality we just know we've experienced, in the hope that we can entice that Reality to someday return to us, laden with crates full of movie reels, Coca-Cola, and fresh cartons of American cigarettes. At that point, we presume, we'd all be farting through silk.


To be continued...


Good Stuff.

Good stuff. I look forward to more of it.

stanley.lieber's picture

Thanks, Cougary.

Thanks, Cougary.