Thursday, 14 February 2008

What's In A Word?

This is another one of my rather rambling 'exploration' posts, where I do a bit of what I'm increasingly inclined to call "amateur philosophy".

Something that I find to be a constant source of both frustration and wonderment when I read political arguments online, the participants often seem to be talking past each other. The debate doesn't seem to go anywhere except maybe round in circles.

You may remember I wrote a post that started out similarly to this a couple of months ago (Link). Then I bemoaned that participants in such debates, particularly those between advocates of ideological positions, such as socialism vs free-market capitalism, tend to display little understanding of the alternative position(s).

I wanted to expand on this contention a bit more here, focusing on one particular aspect of those positions: The assumptions that political/social arguments rely on, that often remain unsaid and that the people making these arguments often take to be self-evidently true. If someone who takes a given underlying proposition to be self-evidently true (and therefore needless to mention) argues with someone who does not - and may even instead consider some other, perhaps conflicting, position to be self-evidently true - it is hardly surprising that those people will end up 'talking past each other'. Sometimes layers upon layers of unsaid underlying assumptions are present.

Underlying assumptions are frequently concealed in particular words, which can have connotations that can only be understood with reference to a certain perspective. Consider this statement, almost meaningless from my point of view, in a recent post by Chris Dillow (Stumbling & Mumbling): "In giving the impression that the only (or even major) irrationality is religion, religion's critics help protect the illusion that managerial capitalist society is rational...In this sense, they are objectively conservative..." This is, I think, a fairly obvious example of what I'm talking about, full of loaded words. Other examples are more arcane, meaning that a discussion can go on quite a while without the participants realising that they each of them are using the same words all the while meaning subtly different things by them.

The above excerpt appears to contain several underlying assumptions. The one I found to be the most striking (indeed I commented on it on the post in question) is that the central phrase 'rational society' is as far as I'm concerned virtually meaningless - never mind talking about 'protecting the illusion' of one. The irony of his reference to "cognitive biases" earlier in the same post is not lost on me!

Note that I'm not talking here about the deliberate mis-use or manipulation of language to confuse or try to influence people (such as that highlighted by Fabian Tassano (Link)). The kind of thing here is not ill-intentioned at all. It is a product of people genuinely holding deep-rooted positions that fundamentally differ in their underlying basis, without necessarily even being aware of it.

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