Thursday, 1 November 2012

HG Library: Struggling for meaning

Speaking in abstract terms is a powerful, manipulative tool. Gwen Griffith-Dickson considers how it is used to mislead – yet can also enhance understanding. A thoughtful and insightful article from the Human Givens Journal, Volume 13, No 2 (2006) 

When I was getting to know the man who eventually became my husband, he told me he had once taken part in a re-enactment of one of those medieval Everyman plays, where characters appear as virtues or as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. I asked him which role he had played. He assumed a noble look and answered, “Chastity”. (I married him anyway.)

Chastity may have gone out of fashion, and no one cautions us against Avarice nowadays. But new versions of these vices and virtues appear all the time – like ‘Celebrity’, for instance. And we human beings are still prone to this same tendency to create abstractions out of aspects of real life, and then confer on them an independent existence all of their own. This process goes by several names (all of them very abstract themselves), such as ‘reification’, ‘hypostatisation’ or, from linguistic psychology, creating ‘nominalisations’. Basically, they are ‘thing-words’ or nouns that are general, rather vague and always, always abstract.

David Cameron’s New Tory manifesto is full of nominalisations, such as, “Instead of issuing top-down instructions, we will enable bottom-up solutions”.1 If you want to know what a bottom- up solution might possibly mean in practice, it means “empowering individuals and civil society”. So maybe we are none the wiser. I certainly still don’t know what I need to do to get a hospital appointment sooner, and this passage leads me to suspect that Cameron doesn’t know what he needs to do either.

New Labour is just as fluent in the language of nominalisations as the New Tories are. We had the Prime Minister working hard to make a nominalisation illegal: that is, the ‘glorification’ of terrorism. Newspapers’ letters pages were full of satirical responses, asking whether the ritual of children celebrating Guy Fawkes’ night, for instance, counted as ‘glorification’ of terrorism. When sarcasm hits the letters pages with such force, it is clear that there is a widespread confusion over what is actually under discussion. This, in a nutshell, is the problem with nominalisations. The brain must always seek to match words with reality – a process known, in human givens parlance, as pattern matching. This is easy enough if you are talking to someone about a ginger cat. They can picture the ginger cat. But if you use a vague and abstract noun, such as ‘glorification’ or ‘empowerment’, which means nothing in and of itself and could have lots of different pattern matches, your listener’s mind has to go on a search to identify the best pattern match from its own memory store, thus creating a personal, concrete meaning for the nominalisation. Unless speaker and listener are already agreed on what a vague term stands for, the likelihood that the listener will produce the same pattern as the speaker can be low. If I begin a sentence making a claim about ‘religion’ and talk about what ‘religious people’ are like, are you thinking of Osama Bin Laden – or Gandhi?

The use of this device has a long history in Western thought. In Europe, its origins can be seen clearly more than 2000 years ago in the writings of the philosopher Plato. These took the form of dialogues in which Plato had his own teacher Socrates speak as the main character and exponent of Plato’s ideas. (Socrates left behind no writings of his own.) Most of the dialogues take their title from the name of the character engaging with Socrates, and each had a single main theme. For example, Lysis is about friendship. Meno is about knowledge. Phaedrus and Symposium are about love. Meno, although it ends up as a discussion of knowledge, starts with a question from Meno about virtue:

Meno: Can you tell me, Socrates – is virtue something that can be taught? Or does it come by practice? Or is it neither teaching nor practice that gives it to a man but natural aptitude or something else?2

The characters then conduct a lively discussion about this word, following a format known as ‘elenctic debate’ – from the Greek word elenchus, which means a kind of breakdown. The intention is to try to push your opponent until their argument breaks down and they become incoherent, contradict themselves, concede defeat or maybe rush in shame from the room – at any of which points you win. These elenctic debates were considered such great sport that they featured at the Olympics of Ancient Greece! They were so very fashionable at the time that young men studied crib notes for how to win – rather like the ‘cheat’s notes’ for today’s computer games. But Plato – through his Socrates – took the matter seriously. The point was not to win for the sake of being clever, but to test ideas and claims to see which could stand up to critical examination. In Plato’s view, proof of an idea’s worthiness to be believed, to count as ‘knowledge and truth’ instead of mere ‘opinion and belief’, came through such a test, a kind of survival of the fittest of ideas...

Unfortunately, the early Platonic dialogues often break down without a clear resolution. We don’t end up with a final answer that can pass every test and it is difficult to avoid seeing that most of these debates are about a nominalisation. If we look at Meno’s opening question about whether virtue needs to be taught or practised or must come naturally, and if we start trying to translate virtue into specific actions that are virtuous, we can see that some things we call ‘virtue’ have to be taught: sharing, for example, is not done spontaneously by children if it hasn’t been modelled, encouraged and explained. Other ‘virtuous’ actions clearly seem to need frequent practice and to get easier as a result, such as saying ‘no’ to inappropriate desires or staying calm when people insult us. And, indeed, some people do seem to find it easier than others to put those ‘virtues’ into practice, perhaps as a result of their genetic disposition. It all depends on which activity or skill comes to mind when you think of the word ‘virtue’.

Socrates turns the opening question back on to Meno.

Socrates: What do you yourself say virtue is?

Meno: But there is no difficulty about it. First of all, if it is manly virtue you are after, it is easy to see that the virtue of a man consists in managing the city’s affairs capably, and so that he will help his friends and injure his foes while taking care to come to no harm himself. Or, if you want a woman’s virtue, that is easily described. She must be a good housewife, careful with her stores and obedient to her husband. Then there is another virtue for a child, male or female, and another for an old man, free or slave as you like; and a great many more kinds of virtue, so that no one need be at a loss to say what it is. For every act and every time of life, with reference to each separate function, there is a virtue for each one of us, and similarly, I should say, a vice.

Meno has nicely demonstrated for us what happens when you throw a nominalisation at the average person and make him answer a question on it. His brain has gone on a quick search and pattern matched to a number of real-life situations in order to give his answer. Unfortunately, Socrates’ reaction is a humorously sarcastic one.

Socrates: I seem to be in luck. I wanted one virtue and I find that you have a whole swarm of virtues to offer. But, seriously, to carry on this metaphor of the swarm, suppose I asked you what a bee is, what is its essential nature, and you replied that bees were of many different kinds, what would you say if I went on to ask: “And is it in being bees that they are many and various and different from one another? Or would you agree that it is not in this respect that they differ, but in something else, some other quality like size or beauty?”

Meno: I should say that, in so far as they are bees, they don’t differ from one another at all.

Socrates: Suppose I then continued: “Well, this is just what I want you to tell me. What is that character in respect of which they don’t differ at all, but are all the same?” I presume you would have something to say? 

Meno: I should.

Socrates: Then do the same with the virtues. Even if they are many and various, yet at least they all have some common character which makes them virtues. That is what ought to be kept in view by anyone who answers the question: “What is virtue?” Do you follow me?

Meno: I think I do, but I don’t yet really grasp the question as I should wish.

Poor Meno. Who can blame him? That is the natural effect of nominalisations on the mind. But it takes just one more page of argument before he has submitted to the lure of nominalising, and accepts that there must be some single essence of Virtue, just as there is Beehood. Thus we can talk about Virtue in the abstract, rather than just in terms of individual cases of virtue.

Why does Socrates-Plato insist on conducting the discussion in this way? I suggest two reasons. One is a philosopher’s sense of wanting to go deeper and find more profound answers to the questions asked. That a girl needs to be taught to keep her house tidy and a boy taught how to manage his affairs, in order for them to be ‘virtuous’ adults, seems a rather banal piece of information if you are engaging in Philosophy. Understanding what Virtue is in itself is the goal. Secondly, coming up with an answer that applies only to an isolated case is, indeed, much less useful than an insight that can be applied more generally.

The abuse of language

We are only now becoming more wary of the insidious, even manipulative, power of nominalisations. However, this device of creating abstractions always had some critics. Certain medieval philosophers didn’t accept that there was such a thing as Truth (as opposed to true statements), or Beauty (as opposed to beautiful objects), and so on. Later, in the Enlightenment period, one campaigner against these intangible nouns was Bishop George Berkeley, born in Kilkenny in Ireland, in 1685.

According to Berkeley, serious error arose from “the nature and abuse of language” and “the opinion that the mind hath a power of framing abstract ideas or notions of things”.3General ideas’, such as the description of all people as ‘human beings’, he has no problem with. It is abstract general ideas – in short, what we are calling ‘nominalisations’ – that he denies have any real existence whatsoever. They don’t contribute to knowledge or to communication.

Berkeley suggests that the problem arises in the following way. People think that, for clarity’s sake, a word must have a single meaning. ‘Beauty’ must mean one thing, not a hundred different things, or we would never be able to understand each other. But then we make a mistake in our logic. Because we have used the word ‘beauty’ to distinguish a particular appearance from ugliness or dullness, whether we are speaking of music or women or horses, we then assume there is one thing called ‘beauty’ that all beautiful things possess. In other words, because we use the word ‘beauty’, we think there must be a thing out there that corresponds to it. But there is no thing that exists separately from the music or women or horses – there are merely lots of things that deserve the adjective ‘beautiful’. As Berkeley concluded tersely, ‘He that knows names do not always stand for ideas will spare himself the labour of looking for ideas, where there are none to be had.’4

Hiding behind a mask

One philosopher who took these reflections further was a little-known 18th-century German called Johann Georg Hamann (1730–88). Hamann’s word for nominalisation was prosopopoeia – and it is worth struggling with this word because it brings out a useful dimension to the debate. Prosopopoeia comes from Greek – it is basically the Greek-based version of the Latin-based word, ‘personification’. Prosopon, in Greek, was originally the name of a mask worn by an actor. Poeia is creating. So the word expresses the idea of creating a mask that pretends to represent a real character. In drama it was a device that allowed ideas or qualities to appear, speak and disport themselves as if they were real live people. My husband’s acting out of the role of ‘Chastity’ was an example of this. He was not playing the role of a real live man called John, who knew how to control or direct his sexual urges. He was playing a character called ‘Chastity’, which stood for something generalised and abstracted from real life.

Hamann noted that something prosopopoeia-like occurs all the time in philosophical thinking. We note people acting in a certain way or doing a certain thing. (So, for example, we see someone thinking clearly, not being overwhelmed by emotions, looking for evidence, trying to make the ideas clearer and test their truth.) We use a general term to describe what they are doing. (We say that they are ‘reasoning’, or we describe the person as ‘reasonable’.) Then we make it abstract and general. (We make a noun out of the verb and adjective, and speak of ‘reason’.) As the noun form makes it look like a thing, naturally we start to speak of ‘reason’ as a thing that we have. Little by little, we start to speak of ‘Reason’ as some universal faculty with qualities of its own. Thus this abstract general term virtually becomes an entity in its own right.

Philosophers, who are interested in debating the nature of things, then start arguing over exactly what qualities Reason has. During the European Enlightenment, endless discussions went on about ‘the nature of Reason’. Is it infallible? Is it universal? Do women have it? Do ‘savages’ or ‘natives’ have it? This is where the practice of prosopopoeia becomes misleading, according to Hamann. If we stick to the word or the notion of ‘reasoning’ as something that people do, we know how to settle questions such as the last two. We can watch people and see. We can listen to women or Africans and observe their behaviour, and see that they reason in similar ways to white European men. If, however, we think that Reason is a ‘thing’ that is or is not part of the essence of humanity, the question will become tangled up in people’s ideological beliefs about the Nature of Man. Ideology will take priority over reality, and there will be interminable debates over the ‘real nature’ of something that doesn’t in itself exist (as Hamann tells us).

In turn, this points up another danger of nominalisations – that of being distracted from genuine concerns or obfuscating or totally misleading ourselves. The question of whether or not women ‘have Reason’ in the same way as men was a distraction from the serious matter of education for women and giving them the right to vote. Indeed, if Hamann had won the argument on ‘reason’ back in the 18th century, and people had been less concerned with the Nature of Reason and more interested in studying how we reason, the observation of another 18th-century philosopher David Hume that ‘reason is the slave of the passions’ might have been taken more seriously – and women might have got the vote earlier. If we believe that there is one universal thing called Reason, then it follows that its characteristics are stable and people either have it or they don’t – potentially disenfranchising women, people of other races, or anyone else who doesn’t think exactly as we do. If, on the other hand, we believe there is no such thing as Reason, there is only reasoning, then we will realise that it can be done badly or well. We will start to observe the circumstances in which it is done badly – such as high emotional arousal – and realise what it takes to do it well.

Us and them

The distancing device of using nominalisations also enables us conveniently to forget that un- desirable qualities belong to us as well as to our enemies. As I work in the field of religion, this is a phenomenon I observe all the time between different religious groups, secularists, and atheists. A quality or tendency that someone dislikes ceases, once it is abstracted, to belong to all human beings – including oneself – and belongs only to the hated group. Once we stop thinking of this tendency as something anyone might exhibit – or refrain from – and see it as an external ‘thing’, the ‘thing’ has nothing to do with us anymore. ‘Authoritarianism’, which might be deemed to afflict ‘religious people’ or ‘men’ becomes quite distinct from the fact that I personally dislike being contradicted just as much as anyone else and therefore can also be authoritarian at times. Thus nominalisations can facilitate the us–them thinking that lies at the root of group violence.5

This tendency afflicts leaders and would-be leaders of all kinds, and becomes a cynical tool in the manipulation of groups. It allows the demagogue to create an enemy, external to the group. Few things are so motivational for a group as creating an enemy and making it really, really threatening. The Catholic priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley, writing of Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope, said, “The cardinal warned that the Church must struggle against Marxism, liberalism, libertinism, collectivism, relativism, radical individualism, and vague religious mysticism – the usual suspects which bounced the bark of Peter on its dangerous voyage.

“This outburst gives a hint of the way the minds of German theologians work. They observe a phenomenon. They define it. Then they turn this definition into a reality with a force and existence of its own. Under such circumstances, there is no need to measure by empirical means the extent to which various forms of relativism exist and what effect they have on human life. In the absence of empirical evidence, ‘relativism’ – pure and simple – is always the favourite culprit of conservatives. ... These distinctions seem to escape the German theological mind, enchanted as it is with the love of pure ideas. ...When they can put an ‘ism’ at the end of a word, ecclesiastics are delighted. Now they have an abstraction that explains every problem.”6

This thinking process, so elegantly described by Greeley, is by no means restricted to German theologians, as we have seen. Indeed, it is a tool used even more powerfully by the politicians of our time. The nominalisation ‘terrorism’ or ‘the war on terrorism’ is used to destroy reputations and silence criticism, push through contro- versial legislation, obtain vast funds for various purposes, and justify the most serious decision a politician can make: to go to war. All this is not to deny the reality of violent acts and belief systems and the need to work against them. The point here is that the vagueness of the term and its effects on the emotions can questionably achieve objectives that would be subjected to more debate and open discussion, if language were used with more precision and less passion.

Emotions come first

Modern neuroscience has shown that emotions precede thought. Centuries ago, Bishop Berkeley anticipated this finding in his observation that language does not simply serve to share thoughts and ideas, but to rouse emotions. This can be done, he claims, directly, with the emotions arising on hearing the words, not preceded by thought in any way: “I entreat the reader to reflect with himself, and see if it doth not often happen either in hearing or reading a discourse, that the passions of fear, love, hatred, admiration, disdain and the like arise, immediately in his mind upon the perception of certain words, without any ideas coming between. ... May we not, for example, be affected with the promise of
a good thing, though we have not an idea of what it is? Or is not the being threatened with danger sufficient to excite a dread, though we think not of any particular evil likely to befall us, nor yet frame to ourselves an idea of danger in abstract?”7

On the positive side ...

Conversely, Berkeley’s observation about the impact of abstract language on the emotions also throws up a positive use for these nouns. When a therapist is trying to help someone relax, for instance, talking about vague abstractions such as serenity, peace and tranquillity will send that person’s brain off on a pattern-matching journey that will soon induce calmness and trance.

There are other positive uses for nominalisations, too. As mentioned, they enable us to generalise so that insights gained in one circumstance can usefully be transferred to another. The human givens approach itself is predicated on the insight that mental ill health occurs when essential needs, such as those for security, control, intimacy, status and purpose, are not met or innate resources are used incorrectly. This insight can be concretised in individual circumstances, to help tackle all psychological sequelae, ranging from anxiety, depression and addiction to psychosis.

So there is something useful that abstract general words can do: they can apply an insight in a broader way. If Socrates flourishes when his needs are met, and so does Meno, then we have a useful starting point for understanding what it takes for all human beings to flourish. It gives us some ‘givens’, so that we don’t have to start from scratch in research or reasoning when we approach a subject that is partly familiar and partly new.

One way a nominalisation can help us do this successfully is by enabling us to go for the essentials and strip out the irrelevant, distracting details. My mother tells the story of looking at dressmaking patterns with a friend to help her to choose one for her desired outfit. My mother pointed to one that looked suitable but her friend, on seeing the illustration of the pattern made up, shook her head vehemently, declaring she didn’t like the colour. My mother was bemused at this reaction, as, of course, the colour of the fabric in the illustration of the pattern’s style has no bearing on how you might use the pattern for yourself. The use of nominalisations to describe concepts – patterns without specific content – can bypass such inappropriate responses, especially when there is likely to be conflict over the details. In negotiating, the starting point may be to agree that we want ‘justice’ as an outcome, in a situation where the combatants disagree on what is or isn’t fair. The details will have to be addressed later but, at least, by using the nominalisation that encompasses what everyone desires, a mood of consensus can be created at the outset, and then be built on.

Avoiding the distraction of details is also why nominalisations can serve as powerful persuaders. Suppose you want to exhort people to work for ‘justice and peace’ in their local communities. You may not know what their communities most need, nor what projects will most inspire them to action. Precisely because using nominalisations requires people to go on their own internal quest for meaning, it gives people the freedom, in situations like this, to create an answer that is meaningful for them. The fact that they have given it context and made it real and that it is something they have chosen makes it more likely to result in a project or commitment that they can ‘own’. There are a variety of clinical or therapeutic uses as well, whereby people design for themselves the therapeutic task that matches a suggested pattern.

Saving face

Nominalisations can also be a smooth and face-saving way to deliver awkward messages. I find the recommended ‘three-part message’ of assertiveness – “When you do x, I feel y, because z...” – a little too confrontational for most situations. Depersonalising the ‘you’ part of the message is a more gracious way of indicating where problems lie. So, instead of saying, “When you don’t tell the rest of us where you are on the project...”, I find it easier to say, “When communication breakdowns happen...” or “When there isn’t a constant information flow...”. People are less likely to pattern match a nominalisation as personal criticism and become defensive. Or perhaps they are pattern matching to my failures instead of theirs and that is why they are so willing to agree. Because nominalisations are so vague, I know I will often need to follow up this tactic with specifics. But that allows me to replace the negative ‘you’ message with a positive ‘you’ message, perhaps something like this: “So perhaps you could ... and I will make sure that I...”.

The bottom line is that nominalisations between consenting adults save time. If everyone knows what you mean by the jargon, it can save a paragraph of explanation. The key question is whether the word improves understanding or obscures it in your listener or reader.

Here are some of my thoughts on when, or whether, use of nominalisations aids communication.

1. What is your motivation in using this word? 
• Do you want to sound more impressive than you would sound if you said it in a simpler way?
• Are you hoping to escape criticism or refutation by being vague?
• Are you saving face for someone by glossing over the details?
• Are you leaving people free to fill in their own ideas?
• Are you getting people to focus on the essence of your point instead of fighting it out over the trivia?

2. Can you fill in concrete details of this word?

• Do you know precisely what you are talking about? For instance, if you were to talk of ‘glorification of terrorism’, would you be clear what kind of speech is encompassed by this term, as opposed to what you would term acceptable free speech? 3. Is your nominalisation a valid generalisation?
• That is, does it come from real observed examples that have something in common – for instance, ‘depression’ as a generic description of the experience of people who feel depressed?
• Could you follow up your nominalisation with concrete examples – unpacking it for your listeners to make it clearer?

4. Might your listeners pattern match to something very different from what you mean?

• If so, will you needlessly create confusion, resistance, resentment? To take my example from earlier: if you say ‘religion’, and you are thinking of something authoritarian, oppressive or fictitious, might other people be thinking of meaning, inspiration, wisdom, spirituality or identity?
• Or does the nominalisation refer to something that people usually have the same emotional reaction to – for instance, ‘poverty’?

5. Can your listeners swiftly make the word real when they try to pattern match it, so that your speech has concrete reality for them?
• Will they be able to come up quickly with a ‘bottom-up solution’?
• Or will you lose their attention for a minute while they drift off on a search – or worse, lose their understanding entirely?

6. Do you want to confuse and distract them, perhaps disabling resistance?
• What are your reasons for this? Are they ethical?

I think a little self-criticism can go a long way in ensuring that, in Berkeley’s terms, our words do have ideas behind them – or, alternatively, are responsible and ethical in the emotions that they arouse. As Hamann said, these words should be “signs for understanding, not for worshipping; aids to waken our attention, not to fetter it”.8

1 See reprinted on &obj_id=127560
(ed. 2012 - this link appears to be no longer available)
2 These quotations from Plato’s Meno are from the Penguin edition, translated by W K C Guthrie.
3 Berkeley, G. A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Because this classic work appears in so many editions, it is not much use giving a publisher, and more helpful to give the paragraph number (which should be in every edition) than a page number. This quotation comes in §6. 4 Berkeley, §24.
5 See the useful work done on ‘us–them’ thinking and the roots of group violence by Staub, A (1989). The Roots of Evil: the origins of genocide and mass violence. Cambridge University Press; and Deikman, A (2003). Them and Us: cult thinking and the terrorist threat. Bay Tree Publishing.
6 Greeley, A (2005). The Making of the Pope: the selection of Pope Benedict XVI and what this choice means for Catholics today. Little, Brown: 2005, pages 174–5; 212. I am indebted to Joan Griffith for bringing this book and passage to my attention as an illustration of prosopopoeia.
7 Berkeley, §20.
8 From Hamann’s letters, translated and cited in Griffith- Dickson, G (1995). Johann Georg Hamann’s Relational Metacriticism. Walter de Gruyter: page 354.

Professor Gwen Griffith- Dickson developed and managed the UK’s largest continuing education programme in religious studies, along with Islamic studies, theology and philosophy, at Birkbeck College, University of London. She was the first woman to hold the Gresham Chair in Divinity in 2001 at Gresham College. She left Birkbeck in 2005 to found The Lokahi Foundation, a multi-faith organisation that aims to undertake research in religion at the highest academic level and address urgent contemporary issues as well as perennial questions of faith, spirituality and community. She remains a Gresham Fellow.

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