Monday, April 30, 2018

The Snares of Language

Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler notes that words are a blessing which can turn into a curse. The words give articulation and precision to vague images and hazy intuitions but they can also restrict thought in the particular area which they are defining. Koestler points out that the deceptively simple words, “space,” and “time,” have traditionally been defined in such a way that before the scientific revolution man lived in a closed universe with firm boundaries in space, a few million miles in diameter, and time, a few thousand years in duration. It took centuries of work for mankind to realize that space and time are abstract concepts.

Here’s an excerpt from Koestler’s The Act of Creation (Chapter 7: “Thinking Aside”):
Words are essential tools for formulating and communicating thoughts, and also for putting them into the storage of memory; but words can also become snares, decoys, or strait-jackets. A great number of the basic verbal concepts of science have turned out at various times to be both tools and traps: for instance, 'time', 'space', 'mass', 'force', weight', ether', 'corpuscle', 'wave', in the physical sciences; 'purpose', 'will', 'sensation, 'consciousness', 'conditioning', in psychology; 'limit', 'continuity', 'countability', 'divisibility', in mathematics. For these were not simple verbal tags, as names attached to particular persons or objects are; they were artificial constructs which behind an innocent facade hid the traces of the particular kind of logic which went into their making. As Sidney Hook has put it: 'When Aristotle drew up his table of categories which to him represented the grammar of existence, he was really projecting the grammar of the Greek language on the cosmos.' That grammar has kept us to this day ensnared in its paradoxes: it made the grandeur and misery of two millennia of European thought. If Western philosophy, to quote Popper, consisted in a series of footnotes to Plato, Western science took a full two thousand years to liberate itself from the hypnotic effect of Aristotle, whose encyclopedic philosophy penetrated the very structure of our language. It determined not only what was 'science' but also what was 'common sense'. 
Koestler argues that true creativity often starts where language ends because language can often become a screen between a thinker and reality.

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