The Deep Significance of Definitions as Arrows

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Often people imagine that a definition relates words to the world. But actually, a definition only relates words to other words—it is we who must, based on our experience, relate the words to the world. Definition is the substitution of words for other words, but it is experience that lets us to link words to the world. This is why experiences in common are the basis of communication, and why expanded consciousness is so vital to harmony and understanding.

A definition is only helpful when the words used link to our personal knowledge and experience. If we have an experience that relates to a word, then that word becomes like an arrow pointing to the experience. Where we have only the word, and lack a corresponding experience, that word remains like an arrow pointing to a question mark. We can, of course, also have in our minds a word-arrow that points to the wrong part of the world. What makes it “wrong?” It’s wrong because we are alone in our definition, so the mistaken word-arrow is useless and misleading as a means of communicating with others.

The practical value of reflecting on this is that it helps us understand something of what happens when we try and fail to communicate. And it also helps us think more clearly, because in so far as we use words when thinking, we can better understand what it is we are doing.

 

“A SONG of the rolling earth, and of words according,
Were you thinking that those were the words, those upright lines? Those curves, angles, dots?
No, those are not the words, the substantial words are in the ground and sea, They are in the air, they are in you.”

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

 

Some illumination exists in understanding when we have got hold of the words, but not that which the words point to. Our psychological condition in this respect is not always as clear and obvious as one might at first think. If it were, mutual understanding would be a far more widespread than it currently is.

The key is to be free of imprisonment in our own vocabularies.  

“Each man wrappeth his thought within his own egotism and calleth the brat a new name.”

The Case of Patience Worth, Prince, Walter Franklin

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2 thoughts on “The Deep Significance of Definitions as Arrows

  1. I especially like Walt Whitman’s quote. When I was young I learned words from context without a clue as to how to pronounce them. I invariably used my new words and was therefore a source of amusement to whose who were more ‘in the know.’

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